The Museum of London’s archive in Hackney is full of boxes, and when I say full I mean really full. It is the largest archaeological archive in the world with a Guinness World Records certificate to prove it. 10km of shelving, 8,500 archaeological sites that have been investigated in Greater London over the past 100 years. Boxes and boxes and boxes, over 120,000 brown boxes. There is the challenge, boxes aren’t very exciting, how do you share that history? How do you tell those stories? What is the point of digging up those moments in time if we don’t share them. If we don’t tell those stories those brown boxes become as dark and quiet as the deep brown earth they were originally dug up from.
My first project at the archive was in 2013 as part of a Volunteer Inclusion Project, it was my first volunteering stint at the Museum of London and a lifeline when I needed it the most. I spent one day a week for 9 weeks repacking artefacts that had come to the archive in the 1970s and 80s. The aim was to improve documentation and storage conditions, and from lifting the lid on my first brown box I was hooked. We worked on a site in Keston, a Roman villa just down the road from where I live. It was a little like rifling through my neighbours possessions, intimate and personal, it certainly satisfied my nosy nature.
There were so many stories that tumbled from those boxes, beautiful roman glass, fragments of fresco wall painting, small pieces of pottery, a little thumb mark here and there. My one great sadness on finishing the project was that I couldn’t share those boxes with more people. How could I leave all those boxes behind when there were so many stories to tell? I wanted to take boxes with me, smuggle them out under my coat, post them off to schools, ask them to take a look and tell me what they thought.
It is a problem for all museums with archives and stores, how do you share the objects with limited space and time and money? I know how important it is because if you are not careful sometimes your museum gets closed down, collections get rationalised and then those stories and connections can get lost for ever.
Now there are a few blogs out there that do a fantastic job of getting forgotten objects out of the box, the thing is not everything in an archive is pretty and valuable, the common, everyday and, to some eyes, boring sits along side the beautiful, unusual and rare. The Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month from the Grant Museum of Zoology is a great example of how you can lavish care on the undervalued and underused areas of your collection.
But there is a little something missing from a blog like this, the thrill of discovery, how do you really get across the joy of opening a box and not knowing what you might find. This is where the Archive Lottery comes in. In 2014 I took part in the Archive Lottery on the ‘Day of Archaeology’ organised by Adam Corsini, the Archaeology Collections Manager at the Museum of London. The premise is twitter users tweet a shelf number to the Museum of London and we run off (or to be more precise I run off) to that shelf, grab a box, take out an object and take a picture with an iPad and tweet it back to the follower. Great fun, great engagement for one day only – you can read my blog on that event here.
But for 2016, Adam decided to take that premise one stage further enabling him to engage with a museum audience and a twitter audience at the same time. For a whole week in the Museum of London foyer, visitors could play the Archive Lottery. This is how it worked – Adam labelled up a number of ‘mystery’ boxes from 1-9. When visitors came up to the table first of all they chose three mystery boxes, this gave them a shelf number that Adam tweeted to a volunteer working in the archive in Hackney. The volunteer then went off to find the shelf number and take down a box from that shelf, they then took a picture with an iPad and tweeted it back.
Whilst this was going on the visitors engaged firstly with some objects out on display, and then with the objects they had chose in their mystery boxes. This gave the volunteer time to find and tweet an object. By the time they had been shown the objects in the museum, their lottery object was ready to be tweeted to them. Adam set up a screen in the museum to show the visitors their lottery object. The tweet also contained the site code giving the original location of the object, this enabled Adam to do a search on the site via the LAARC website which gave further information on the area.
To keep the whole process exciting and engaging, Adam set up an iPad at the archive with a Skype link to the main museum so visitors could actually see the volunteer running off to grab their box.
Chatting to Adam about the project he outlined his main aims:
1 – the simple attraction of being able to handle real objects
2 – the mystery of not knowing what was going to be in their 3 numbered boxes
3- seeing a real life person going to their generated shelf in realtime to find them something
4 – discovering a completely random object, possibly really beautiful, possibly a bit of brick, and then having the chance to follow this up by engaging with Twitter
Adam was aiming for a number of things, not only connecting with museum audiences and opening up behind the scenes but engaging with a Twitter audience too. There were some fantastic examples of this with discussions on the use of ‘sherds vs shards’ and a Twitter conversation on the uses for medieval hair!
— Adam Corsini (@AdamCorsini) January 26, 2016
— Museum of London (@MuseumofLondon) January 26, 2016
— Roy Stephenson (@RoyStephenson) January 26, 2016
In the museum setting Adam got a number of different staff members to take part, not just front of house but staff who worked in finance and administration, really giving them a chance to interactive with the public, handle some fantastic objects and take on a new role in the museum. For the team of volunteers at the archive it was a chance to be given some free choice and control over which objects they chose. We each took a different day, my day was Tuesday and it was fantastic to be given that sense of trust and control in a volunteer project.
There were a number of things that could have gone wrong with the project, particularly with the increased use of technology and the Skype link, but Adam singled out the great support he had from the Audio Visual and IT team in giving help and reassurance throughout the project. The Information Resources and Communications team also played a large part with discussions around copyright of images and how best to share the information.
With a new museum on the horizon taking staff from different departments and cross working was a valuable part of the experience, and a fantastic chance for them to see what the Front of House team do every day.
It was a fantastic chance to be part of this project and I know the other volunteers working away at the archive felt exactly the same as me. Having a chance to share the joy of discovery is so special. I also got a chance to pop into the museum on the last day of the project to see how the process worked in the museum setting.
It was wonderful to experience visitors’ excitement in seeing the object they had chosen, I also loved the way a number of staff popped by to see what was going on and chose their own shelf numbers too. Social media gives museums an outlet to share archives, particularly to those who may never be able to visit in person, but in this project it also allowed physical visitors to the museum to engage with the museum and the archive in a new way alongside their twitter counterparts.
Volunteering at the Museum of London never gets old, there are always new opportunities and I always feel a special thrill in opening up one of the 120,000 boxes. Getting a chance to share that feeling is why I love what I do.
From the beautiful –
— Adam Corsini (@AdamCorsini) January 29, 2016
To the not so beautiful… kiln waste
— Adam Corsini (@AdamCorsini) January 28, 2016
Search #ArchiveLottery on Twitter for a chance to see some of the objects that were uncovered.
You can get a chance to visit the archive on one of their regular tours – http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/whats-on/adult-events/archaeology-events/